2019 Books of the Year
For me, Christmas represents an intoxicating mix of booze, faux-joy and difficult relatives.
I find the familial tension tends to fester as the arduous days tick by, feeding like a hungry tumour on scraps of off-the-cuff spite – aided by the spiralling collective blood alcohol level, of course – until it inevitably absorbs us all in its gluttonous body.
In other words: a big fat row.
My only solace then from the eventual denouement de festive cheer, is a good page turner. My advice if you too are compelled to watch your family unravel before your very eyes: make sure you’ve got a chunky hardback as a buffer.
And so, to assist in your search for something to pretend to read when it all kicks off, the Charlotte Street Partners team has put together our top books of 2019. A varied assortment, we hope you’ll find something to knock out the opposition.
Enjoy – and merry Christmas!
*Disclaimer: Neither Charlotte Street Partners nor its affiliates advocate the use of books in combat.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands by Huw Lewis-Jones
Many of us are a touch adrift in the uncertain seas of our world. Collectively we feel pulled by tides we struggle to understand, let alone control. There is no map and no navigator to trust. So what better than to spend the holidays and the weeks to come imagining different worlds?
This beautiful, treasure trove of a book draws together 24 estimable thinkers to share with us their own inspirations and imaginary places. As its author Huw Lewis-Jones writes, “maps have the power to transport us, filled as they are with wonder and possibility.”
I hope you enjoy them as much as we have. As no less a person than Albert Einstein put it: “imagination is more than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.”
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, Elif Shafak
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019, Elif Shafak’s latest book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, is a beautiful and poignant story of Tequila Leila and the memories she recalls in the first moments after her death.
The book was described by the Financial Times as “a novel that gives voice to the invisible, the untouchable, the abused and the damaged, weaving their painful songs into a thing of beauty.” Well worth a read for its blinding originality.
Venus and Aphrodite, Bettany Hughes
Breathing new life into our worn-out portrayal of Venus and Aphrodite, Bethany Hughes traces the journey of the goddess through time and explores why she still matters to us today in the 21st Century, revealing her as a potent force with the ability to transform how we see ourselves and contend with desire in modern society.
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
A must for men and women alike, this exquisite book delves into the innermost thoughts and desires of three real women. Taddeo spent eight years tracking the stories that fill these pages, even moving to the towns where each of the women lived to better understand their lives. Complex and converging disappointments and hopes are laid bare to see through their relationships with the very different men they love, or tolerate, or hate. Although non-fiction, the dreamy prose reads like a novel and will have you hooked until the very last page.
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
If you are looking for a story with grit and substance, something that speaks to the complicated themes of family and forgiveness, then snuggle up by the fire with Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle. In this memoir, Walls recounts how she and her three siblings spent their childhood rambling through desert towns in the American southwest with their eccentric parents. Throughout, Walls weaves the tale of how they found the resources to eventually leave a neglectful home. Most miraculously of all, Walls summons the strength to understand the profound flaws of her parents and does not tell her story from a place of resentment, but unconditional love.
My Name Is Why, Lemn Sissay
“I am not defined by my scars, but by the incredible ability to heal.”
Lemn Sissay’s words have stayed with me since I first found his poetry on Twitter and then again recently when I heard him on Desert Island Discs and the podcast How to Fail. Since its release in August, his memoir My Name Is Why has been hailed as an extraordinary work, though no quantity of stellar reviews could prepare me for the significance, the depth and the warmth I found in it. It has informed my thinking and understanding of our own wildly broken care system in Scotland, which is currently undergoing review, and it is my sincere hope that this book will inform the thoughts of policy and decision makers around the world as much as it will undoubtedly continue to bring light to all its readers. Magic stuff.
“I am not defined by darkness Confided the night Each dawn I am reminded I am defined by light”
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino
This is one of the few books I ordered in advance of its publication, the very minute I heard Jia Tolentino had a whole book of her essays coming out. For my money, Tolentino is the best writer on pop/modern/apocalyptic culture in America today. Her talent as a writer and as an observer of a self-obsessed generation is woven through every sentence with equal measures of affection and searing criticism. Don’t take my word for it, please just read the one about scammers or the rise of the internet and her time on reality TV or the one on female self-optimisation – in fact, do yourself a favour and read them all.
Lost Dog: A Love Story by Kate Spicer
I am a self-confessed crazy dog lady and this book is, yes, partly a love letter to a dog named Wolfy, who was rescued and then lost by lifestyle journalist Kate Spicer. It explores not only the immediate impact of Wolfy’s disappearance, but also the emotional turbulence that comes with being a dog owner.
But the focus isn’t solely on Wolfy – although he is unquestionably the star of the show. It is on both the myth of modern womanhood, and the enduring mystery of the relationship between human and canine.
India Knight described it in The Times as "the most brilliant dissection of a particular kind of life, that of a not entirely happy, superficially enviable, cold-seeming west-London-dwelling, hooked-up but childless fortysomething woman".
This is a must read for dog lovers – or anyone who struggles to understand our nation’s obsession with “fur-babies”, for that matter.
The Friends of Harry Perkins by Chris Mullin
The Friends of Harry Perkins – the sequel to Chris Mullin’s celebrated A Very British Coup after a gap of nearly 40 years – has a pretty dramatic first line: “Harry Perkins was buried on the day that America declared war on China.”
The first book was eerily prescient of a Corbynista-type Labour Party – albeit Perkins actually became prime minister, at least for a while – and Friends deals with themes of today’s world, including the UK’s departure from the European Union: “Brexit Britain was a gloomy place.”
In memory of the late Jo Cox, this book is a troubling but entertaining read. Hopefully it is a portent of a future we manage to avoid.
Learning from the Germans, Susan Neiman
One country that has fascinated me this year is Germany. Why? Trips to Munich bier gartens, Cologne music bars and the bombed-out St Nicholas church in Hamburg aside; my newfound Germanophilia owes itself instead to the country’s understanding of its own history. In the year that Brexit dominated over here and historical amnesia abounded in our political debate, I found its pain-staking honesty a veritable tonic.
The book, which captures what I see as the vast chasm in historical nuance between Germany and pretty much every other Western nation, is Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans. This one-part history, one-part autobiography comes from a white girl who grew up in the southern US during the civil rights-era and who has since spent her adult life as a Jewish woman in Berlin.
Read this book for the subtle appreciation that our national histories need not be all glory, pomp and ceremony in order to be successful narratives in the present day.